* PCAOB considers limiting years for U.S. audit firms
* PCAOB head says auditors are under pressure
* Study could affect the way Big Four firms do business (Adds comment from audit industry group)
By Dena Aubin
NEW YORK, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Accounting firms are doing a less-than-adequate job auditing corporations, and term limits should be considered to ensure more independence, the head of the main U.S. audit industry watchdog group said on Tuesday.
“The very size, complexity and systemic risk found in today’s issuer population supports the need for reconsideration of audit firm rotation,” James Doty, chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, said at a meeting of the board.
The PCAOB, which inspects audit firms across the United States, has found hundreds of audit failures and “it’s hard not to question” whether lack of a properly skeptical attitude among auditors contributed to the problems, Doty said.
FACTBOX on auditing terms in the news [ID:nN1E77B0IM]
The PCAOB is considering whether to limit the number of years an audit firm can work for the same client — an action that could break up some business relationships more than a century old. About 175 companies in the S&P 500 index have had the same auditor for 25 years or more, according to data from Audit Analytics.
Many large companies that failed or required government support during the 2008 credit crisis, including Lehman Brothers, AIG and Merrill Lynch, had long-running relationships with their auditors, a PCAOB subcommittee reported in March.
Auditor rotation could mean the loss of some of the highest-fee clients for the Big Four auditors — Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC — which check the books of most public companies.
Some PCAOB board members questioned how effective auditor rotation would be and whether the mandatory switch every so many years would justify the disruptions and costs of auditor changes.
“I have serious doubts that mandatory rotation is a practical or cost-effective way of strengthening independence,” board member Daniel Goelzer said.
Firm rotation would not be cheap, Goelzer said, citing a 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office survey of auditors, who estimated that getting up to speed on new clients could increase first-year audit costs by 20 percent.
A cost-benefit analysis should be central to any study of auditor rotation, Cindy Fornelli, executive director of the accounting industry’s Center for Audit Quality, said in a statement.
“It is important that any new requirements in this area, including mandatory firm rotation, meet the objective of improving audit quality,” Fornelli said.
The board voted to seek public comment through Dec. 14 on a “concept release,” or initial report on auditor rotation and other ways of assuring auditor independence. A concept release is the first step in drafting changes in auditor standards.
Considered as early as the 1970s, auditor rotation has drawn strong opposition from auditors, who say it would be disruptive because of the time needed to become familiar with new clients. The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley act, which created the PCAOB, mandated that lead audit partners be switched after five years but put no term limits on the audit firms. For details click on [ID:nN1E7700DY].
Doty pledged the PCAOB would take care to “first do no harm,” but added, “If not mandatory rotation, then what?”
One alternative might be to selectively require rotation when audit failures occur and long auditor tenures seem to have played a role, Goelzer said.
If auditors knew they might lose a client when they were not skeptical enough, “we might stimulate a change in mental attitude” without imposing auditor rotation across the board, he said.
Though there may be a learning curve when a new auditor starts a job, Doty said companies have changed auditors in large numbers in the past.
Between 2003 and 2006, more than 6,500 public companies, or nearly 52 percent of public companies, changed auditors, Doty said, citing data from research firm Glass Lewis.
“The learning curve and cost-based issues involved in changing audit firms cannot be fairly described as uncharted waters,” he said.
One way of easing the transition might be to require more communication between incoming and outgoing audit firms, PCAOB staff members said. (Additional reporting by Nanette Byrnes; Editing by Robert MacMillan, Howard Goller, Dave Zimmerman)